I was having a conversation the other day with a close friend about purpose. She said that part of what motivated her to do what she does (teach) is to do something that has meaning, but that she might not do it if there was no purpose. She said one of the things that bothers her about astronomy was the fact that it seemed to indicate that the efforts we give here on Earth are largely irrelevant on a cosmic scale. She said that she had, therefore, a faith in a purpose larger than we are; a sort of cosmic purpose.
It is certainly humbling to put ourselves in context, given what we know about the scale of the universe. Moving from where we were a few centuries ago to where we are now, we have gone from the center of a small universe to a tiny part of an immense universe. And that’s surely underestimating it!
Now, theists and other people with ideas about things spiritual tend to believe in some cosmic purpose. But even a few atheists will hold onto such notions from time to time. Perhaps Buddhism could be included into that set. In any case, these theists may not claim to know what this purpose is, but they claim to know or have faith that one exists. And if there is a god or some spiritual existence that exists in the universe, then the likelihood of this being true becomes much higher, although not necessarily the case
But, of course, I’m not one of those people that believes such things. I believe that the vast majority of the universe if non-sentient, unconscious, and inert. Stars, dust, galaxies, nebula, etc. There may be other life elsewhere (in fact, it would seem improbable if there weren’t, although we have no evidence of such life), but even if there is life it is likely an infinitesimal percentage of the universe.
It is life, sentient life specifically, for which purpose has relevance. Purpose is a thing that only applies to things that are capable of abstraction, and therefore things which are conscious. Purpose is not relevant as an attribute for things which have not sentience. It would be like talking about the effect of the strong nuclear force between pillows; it’s simply a fallacy of scale, if you would. Talking about purpose on a cosmic scale simply makes no sense.
In addition, it may actually turn out to be a category error; parts of the universe have the property of consciousness, thus the potential of the concept of purpose, but this does not apply to the whole. One cannot simply project the purpose they have at their scale (that of culture, and personal relationships), and apply it to the universe any more than they can project their concept of god onto the universe. What exists in our heads as concepts and bodies as feelings do not necessarily exist beyond us; there may be no referent to your concept of cosmic purpose or gods.
Now, one might try and argue for a kind of cosmic consciousness, or perhaps a god of some sort, but this merely becomes a distraction from the point. I’m taking for granted the absence of such things, because I am an atheist after all. I see no evidence for any cosmic awareness, sentience, nor do I know of any mechanism which could be demonstrated to be the infrastructure of such a cosmic consciousness. You see, one would have to propose some other way of creating consciousness (and therefore things like meaning and purpose) without physical brains or computers of some other kind. That, or they would have to argue something like a relationship between galaxies (perhaps based on gravity or something) that acts somewhat like a neural net, making the universe a sort of brain. A wild suggestion, indeed, and one that I doubt could stand up to the most basic of scrutiny.
What we know is that we are somewhat intelligent primates on a small rock orbiting an average star. We have purposes. My purpose here, in writing this post, is to try and make a point to you that if you think about a cosmic purpose, you may have to re-think your hypothesis. (Whether I succeed or not is hardly to the point to whether this is my purpose). But the purposes we feel, whether consciously created by ourselves or not, can only stretch so far. I will tentatively argue that the limit of this purpose-stretching is the limits of culture. The edge of our cultural influences seem to be the furthest we can stretch our purposes, it seems, because it is the limit to where our intentions can reach.
Now, perhaps there will be a day when our culture has more vast influence. And perhaps, in the distant future, we may discover a way to influence the cosmos itself. Then, and only then. can we start talking seriously about a cosmic purpose. For the moment, the concept of cosmic purpose seems to have no real referent in the world outside our minds.
And reality is that which continues to exist when we stop believing in it.